Riders to the Sea main character Maurya, an old peasant woman, standing on the coast

Riders to the Sea

by J. M. Synge

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Riders to the Sea Summary

Riders to the Sea is a play by J. M. Synge in which Maurya loses both of her surviving sons to the sea, which has already claimed six other relatives.

  • Maurya has already lost six loved ones to the sea: her father-in-law, her husband, and four of her sons. She has two surviving sons: Michael and Bartley.

  • While Maurya is sleeping, her daughters learn that Michael has drowned. They do not tell Maurya or Bartley.

  • Bartley rides off into the sea, where he is swept off his pony and drowned. Maurya learns that both Bartley and Michael are dead.

Summary

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Last Updated on June 23, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 535

Riders to the Sea is a one-act play set in Ireland’s Aran Islands. As the play opens, Maurya, an old peasant woman and the principal character, is asleep. Her daughter Cathleen spins and bakes a cake for Bartley, her brother, who plans to attend the horse fair in Connemara. Four of Maurya’s sons, her husband, and her father-in-law have all been lost at sea, and her son Michael is missing. Her youngest daughter, Nora, enters and shows Cathleen a bundle of clothing that she got from a young priest who brought it from Donegal, where the body of a man washed up on shore. The sisters think the clothes might belong to Michael and decide to hide them in the loft in order to avoid distressing Maurya.

When Maurya wakes up, they talk about Bartley going to the mainland. Maurya says that he won’t go; the weather is too bad, and the priest will stop him. Her daughter says that the priest won’t stop him, and others said that he would go. If he doesn’t, there’s a chance that another boat may not leave for quite awhile.

Bartley, who has been checking the boat schedule, enters looking for rope to make a horse halter, and Maurya and Bartley argue. She is worried that, if her son leaves, he will die. She has lost all the other men in her family to the sea. The bad weather, the uncertainty of whether Michael is alive or not, and the history of her life compel her to beg Bartley to stay. Besides, she says, they might need the rope Bartley is using in order to lower Michael’s coffin into the grave. Bartley doesn’t listen, though. Cathleen says that it’s natural for young men to go to the sea and not listen to old women who repeat the same thing over and over. Maurya eventually leaves with Bartley to see him off. When she returns, she cries and says that they won’t see him again.

The women argue as several old women begin to enter and pray. Cathleen and Nora think that Maurya shouldn’t have sent Bartley off with strong words. However, Maurya was right. When Nora brings out the drowned man’s clothes brought by the priest, Maurya identifies them as Michael's clothes and knows that her son is dead. Just as she is confronting this fact, men approach the house holding a large object with water dripping from it, leaving a track by the big stones. Cathleen immediately recognizes that the object is Bartley’s body.

Bartley’s gray pony threw him into the ocean where the surf was rough, and he drowned. Maurya says that the sea can’t affect her anymore; it has already taken everything. She says that now she can stop saying so many prayers for her loved ones, like she prayed for Bartley. Michael has had a clean burial in the north, and Bartley will be buried with the white boards that they got for Michael’s burial. No one lives forever, Maurya declares after sprinkling holy water over Michael’s clothes, and so they must be satisfied with their graves.

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